REVIEW: Four Thousand Paws: Caring for the Dogs of the Iditarod: A Veterinarian’s Story by Lee Morgan

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An intimate account—the first from a trail veterinarian—of the canines who brave the challenges of the Iditarod.

Few sporting events attract as much attention, or create as much spectacle, as the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. Each March, despite subzero temperatures and white-out winds, hundreds of dogs and dozens of mushers journey to Anchorage, Alaska, to participate in “The Last Great Race on Earth,” a grueling, thousand-mile race across the Alaskan wilderness.

While many veterinarians apply, only a small number are approved to examine the elite canine athletes who, using solely their muscle and an innate drive to race, carry handlers between frozen outposts each year, risking injury, illness, and fatigue along the way. In Four Thousand Paws, award-winning veterinarian Lee Morgan—a member of the Iditarod’s expert veterinary corps—tells the story of these heroic dogs, following the teams as they traverse deep spruce forests, climb steep mountain slopes, and navigate over ice-bound rivers toward Nome, on the coast of the Bering Sea, where the famed Burled Arch awaits.

Review

I’ve circled back to read about and watch (online) the Iditarod dog sled race for years and reviewed “Broken Trails” a number of years ago. “Four Thousand Paws” interested me because it promised to show the side of the volunteer veterinarians who endure frigid temps, crap coffee, white knuckle small plane rides, among other things, to take care of the medical needs of the dogs and ensure their health and safety.

Morgan begins with his credentials as a vet from Washington, DC who got interested in helping with the race and who submitted an application to be a part of the team caring for the race dogs. Despite not yet having the job, he bought and loaded up all the (extensive) cold weather clothing required and flew to Anchorage. Luckily for him, he was among the chosen. From there he talks about what is expected of the vets and other volunteers – mainly cheerfully but carefully do your job, pitch in where needed, and never say “It’s not my job.”

There are strict guidelines to be followed for checking the dogs and signing off that this has been done. Vets are there to be sure the dogs are healthy and fit for the next part of the race. If a dog needs to be dropped, most often the musher will already be aware and willing to do so for the safety of the dog. Dropped dogs are not just abandoned but kept together until they can be flown back to Anchorage and then kept there until the musher retrieves them. Dogs that need immediate attention – such as when a man on a snowmobile attacked two teams one year – will be airlifted especially rather than wait for a group trip.

There’s more to the race for Morgan than just his official duties and he talks about the various checkpoints where he’s worked and some of the more colorful aspects of life there. He shows great respect for the people and history of Alaska. The book is also loaded with photos. He’s been volunteering for years and has combined his experiences based on checkpoints rather than tell just the story of any particular year. One thing I like is that he doesn’t skimp on times where he made mistakes – like letting a dropped dog get too close to the food supplies, even if he didn’t fess up to the musher whose supplies got eaten – or fell prey to the elements – such as when he sank up to his neck in a snow drift right in sight of the teams leaving a checkpoint and a (gleeful) journalist there to capture the day.

The Iditarod officials have gotten better and stricter since the beginning of the race in ensuring that the dogs are well taken care of and their needs are seen to. Mushers have often bred their dogs and raised them from puppies and thus have a close bond with them. Morgan can often tell veteran dogs as they know the drill when it comes to being examined by the vets at the checkpoints. Other times, he’s been the victim of dog pranks by playful rookies. Morgan obviously enjoys taking part in the race and it was fun to read about his experiences. B

~Jayne

Veterinary Center – Iditarod

• Dog Care: Dog health and care are central to the success of The Iditarod, providing a platform for international research on dog health, nutrition and safety. Each year, research studies through our partnerships with universities and veterinarians have led to breakthrough discoveries that improve the lives of all dogs. The Race has adopted the “Best Standards of Trail Dog Care Practices” for sled dog kennels, with a focus on the health and happiness of the dogs, while supporting the goals of the competitive mushers. The official Iditarod Veterinarian team assesses kennel standards year-round and provides ongoing educational opportunities for mushers.

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Jayne

Another long time reader who read romance novels in her teens, then took a long break before started back again about 25 years ago. She enjoys historical romance/fiction best, likes contemporaries, action- adventure and mysteries, will read suspense if there’s no TSTL characters and is currently reading more fantasy and SciFi.

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